A few days ago, the headline on most of the BBC news bulletins and in the press was that schools were misdiagnosing children as having special needs when all they needed was better teachers and pastoral care. I was surprised by the reporting, as the implication was that schools diagnosed special needs, when at most they identify children who might later be diagnosed by appropriately qualified medical practitioners with assistance from appropriately trained therapists. Further, much of the reporting seemed to imply that this misdiagnosis was across the range of children with special needs, including those who had undergone a formal statutory assessment which includes a plethora of testing and reports.It just didn’t add up, so I decided to look at the Ofsted review for myself, and also the Lamb Inquiry which was coming to an end as the Ofsted review started and which covered similar territory.
The Ofsted review and the Lamb report both make it very clear that there is a formal definition of special needs and that children who fall within the terms of that definition are variously categorised as School Action (their needs are met completely within the school resources), School Action Plus (where school personnel call on expertise from outside the school to advise or provide support) and children who have had a statutory assessment of their special needs and a statement has been written. The children identified by the Ofsted review as being wrongly categorised fall into the School Action category. There is no suggestion that children with statements or on school action plus are wrongly categorised – but there is a strong message that they do not always have their needs met appropriately and are not always enabled to reach their potential.
As I suspected, there was no mention in the review of schools or teachers diagnosing special needs. Although there are children being identified as having special needs and apparently being placed on School Action for spurious reasons, what to my mind is more alarming, and the press made little of, is the fact that many children with properly identified and diagnosed special needs are not having their needs met appropriately – and that this can occur in all kinds of school and college settings.
Reading the review, it’s main message is that rather than developing special needs provision in ad hoc and opportunist ways, there should be more emphasis on strategic planning and development of provisions and on developing measures to ensure provisions are actually effective. This might reduce the view expressed by parents, and recorded by the Lamb Inquiry, that a statement was necessary in order to ensure their children’s needs were met.
The review also addresses inter agency working. Confusion is caused by the different terms used in education (special needs), medicine (disability) and social care (children in need). “Across education, health and social care services, the approaches to identification and the thresholds for intervention were very different. This made joint working across services difficult and led to confusion and a sense of unfairness amongst parents. It multiplied the number of assessments that some young people had to undergo, and created different and sometimes inconsistent plans for supporting them.”
All in all, the main thrust of the review was not the headline grabbing element of children being wrongly identified, but rather the shortcomings in the system leading to needs being inappropriately addressed and the need for higher quality services provided by people with expertise in working with children with special needs, and a concern that depending too much on low attainment or slow progress as indicators of SEN can divert attention away from some children and young people with complex and specialist support needs who are apparently coping academically.